John 3:16-17– (Jesus said), “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
Five hundred years ago this week, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of 95 theses, or statements, he believed needed to be discussed and debated by the Holy Roman Catholic Church, of which he was a loyal and faithful monk, priest, and professor. To post such statements on the church door was the usual way to initiate a discussion in that university town, similar to writing a letter to the editor today. Much to Luther’s surprise, the bishops, cardinals, and pope were not interested in such a discussion. Instead, they told him to keep his big mouth shut or he would be sorry. And in those days, being in trouble with the church also meant being in trouble with the government, namely Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, ruler of all central Europe. Luther had many reasons to keep his big mouth shut; but he would not keep quiet. Even though Charles and Pope Leo tried to have him killed, Luther kept speaking and writing. The abuses in the church he condemned were well known, people were ready for reform, and Luther quickly became one of the most famous men in Europe. The Gutenberg press had just been invented, and Luther’s books and pamphlets were instant best sellers. At one point, one-fourth of everything in print in all of Europe was by Martin Luther. The Reformation he started 500 years ago this week changed not only the church, but the whole world. He is usually listed in the top three of the most important people of the last one thousand years.
Let’s back up a little. At one time there was only one Christian denomination—the Roman Catholic Church, with its center in Rome. The word catholic, small ‘c’, means universal (that’s why it is in our creed even though we are Lutherans). And, for 1,000 years the Roman Catholic Church was universal, with every Christian on earth belonging to it.
In 1054 A.D. there was a split in the church between East and West—the church in Eastern Europe, Russia, and some of North Africa split off from Rome and became the Eastern Orthodox Church—Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, etc.. From then on, Christianity has been divided. But the church in central and western Europe remained united for another 450 years.
In the 1400’s, this Roman Catholic Church began to crack apart again. Many aspects of the church had become very corrupt and unbiblical, and people began to speak out against it. This was before the days of free speech, and dissenters were routinely burned at the stake, or, put to death in some other unpleasant way. The church, with help from the harsh medieval government, was able for a time, to snuff out these isolated calls for reform. But in 1483 Martin Luther was born into a world ripe for change. God gave him a brilliant mind and a courageous spirit, he was born into a favorable local political environment which protected him from arrest and execution, people were fed up with the church after six terrible popes in a row, and the printing presses were rolling. And God used that man and that moment in time to change everything.
The Roman Catholic Church itself corrected many of its abuses in the decades and centuries after the Reformation, and it is a far different church today. But all will admit that the church was an outrageous mess in 1517.
There are many ways to tell the story of the Reformation. This is just a very little bit about a very big and very complex history. But I want to focus on Martin Luther’s personal story, and describe a bit of the inner struggle that led him to take on the whole world. I do this not only as a history lesson, but to eventually get around to the words of Jesus in John 3:16-17 that began this meditation.
It was not the lifelong dream of Martin Luther to become a monk and a priest. He had originally intended to be a lawyer, which made his father very happy. Lawyers made good money, Luther was a brilliant student, and he was on the verge of a promising and lucrative career.
Then, while walking on a country road one night, he got caught in a thunderstorm. It must have been a violent storm, because Luther feared for his life. In his anxiety, he prayed, promising that if God spared him, he would become a monk. Luther survived storm and kept his promise.
Luther abandoned his plans to become a lawyer, became an Augustinian monk, and entered a monastery. His father was furious. How could Martin support his parents when they got old now that he took a vow of poverty? (This was long before the days of Social Security, and parents depended on their sons to provide for them in their old age.) In a moment of fear, Luther had given up the chance to be wealthy, the opportunity to marry and have a family, and the prestige that would go with being an important lawyer, along with alienating his parents. His dad angrily told Martin that if he wanted to be so religious he could start by obeying the fourth commandment and ‘Honor his father and his mother.’ It saddened Luther to go against his earthly father, but he was determined to keep his promise to his heavenly father. (continued…)
O Lord, you see how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office. Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago. Therefore, I call upon you for guidance. Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service. I want to teach the people. I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it. Use me as your instrument. Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything. Amen.
–Martin Luther (1483-1546)